The head of security operations at Facebook, Regina Wallace-Jones, is in charge of protecting 1.6 billion people. She’s an engineer who does math and science every day, but she doesn’t think those skills are the only ones helping her to tackle challenges at Facebook.
Instead, Wallace-Jones believes that her individual life experiences, from public policy to motherhood, have also been valuable in helping Facebook to design its security solutions for real people, she said in a talk today at the Connect 2016 Conference in Seattle, hosted by Women Who Code.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that engineering is only about math and science or that engineering expertise is all you have to offer the world,” she said. “Your experiences and your perspectives can help inspire a company to find a different approach to a problem or encourage someone else to speak up.”
Wallace-Jones, along with other members of the Facebook security team, volunteers in a low-income middle school in San Jose, Calif. where she has tried to teach these life lessons to her students, the majority of whom are women. In her class on computer science and cyber security, Wallace-Jones encourages students to leverage all of their experiences and interests to engineer solutions to real world problems.
Now, her students have career goals that go beyond just technical problems and solutions, she said.
“One girl wants to be an immigration attorney,” Wallace-Jones said. “She believes that the cyber security skills that she has, and will further develop, will allow her to protect her clients and their personal information. Another student wants to work in surgical robotics and plans to create security software that will protect those machines from cyber attacks. Another wants to teach.”
Wallace-Jones began her own career in tech very focused on only the technical aspects of engineering, she said. She worked as a systems engineer for Motorola, creating a satellite system that would give people access to communication in remote places, like archeologists out on digs or researchers living in the poles. However, she felt like she was cut off from contributing anything more than just her particular lines of code, she said.
“My role in bringing that product to life felt very small,” she said. “The community that I was surrounded by did not seem to be a community that was particularly inclined to allow me to have a voice or a part in the product and process.”
So Wallace-Jones decided to go back to graduate school at UCLA for a master’s degree in public policy. She wanted to expand the scope of the problems she was working on and feel more connected to her work.
“I thought that I would be more focused on people and challenging the world in public policy,” she said. “Less focused on the procedural stuff that I was doing in tech that I didn’t feel very attached to.”
Eventually, Wallace-Jones re-entered the tech scene at Yahoo, running technology and operations. She stayed there for five years before joining the cyber-security team at Facebook.
“The big thing I think that Facebook has done for me is bring together engineering and voice,” she said. “Facebook is all about individual voice and social sharing and celebrating all the different parts of our lives…Inside, the company is like that, too. It’s a place where I feel like my own voice really matters, which is not something that I always felt elsewhere in tech.”
Wallace-Jones now works for a company that sees that the value of engineers goes beyond their math and science chops, she said. Facebook understands that engineers are motivated problem solvers who can have a big impact when they are encouraged to bring a wealth of diverse ideas, talents and experiences to the table. Engineers whose individual perspectives and experiences are valued are able to come up with better solutions and — just as important — even better questions for the company to ask, she said.
“The impact of engineers goes well beyond the mobile apps, the gadgets, and the security systems that we build,” she said. “The quest to engineer meaningful solutions…is not just about math and science, it’s about making amazing solutions for real people in the real world. It’s about pushing mankind to its outer limits by inspiring the world to imagine bigger solutions than our hands can hold.”